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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Marines and their Afghan counterparts are claiming some success in a test of President Obama's military surge. A major U.S. offensive in Southern Afghanistan to expel the Taliban from a key stronghold is going into its second week, but the fighting in and around the town of Marjah shows little sign of letting up.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is embedded with the Marines. She reports they're trying to perform a balancing act by driving out the Taliban while also winning the support of the local population.

Unidentified Man #1: (foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah! Whoo!

(Soundbite of aircraft engine)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers were in a good mood during the first hours of the offensive here in Marjah.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: Taliban resistance to the advancing 3rd Battalion 6th Marines and the Afghan army seemed sporadic and weak. The only casualties were a Marine with a minor gunshot wound to the arm and an Afghan soldier who'd shot himself in the foot.

Sergeant AMANULLAH(ph) (Afghan Army): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: From a ridge overlooking Northwestern Marjah, Afghan Sergeant Amanullah declared they'd broken through the outer ring of enemy resistance. He predicted that soon, the rest of Marjah would fall. Marine officers leading the charge were more circumspect, like Captain Bill Hefty, the commander of the battalion's India Company. He cautioned against underestimating the Taliban.

Captain BILL HEFTY (Company Commander, India Company): They're harassing. They're watching. I mean, there's nowhere we've been since we got out here that they haven't seen us and known what were doing. And they're writing in their notebooks, figuring out how we do things, just like we are writing in ours figuring out how they're doing it. And they're more mobile. That's for sure.

NELSON: By nightfall, it was clear that winning here would not be easy. One problem the joint force faces is a fast-moving enemy, one who plays dirty, using residents as human shields and has choked Marjah with homemade bombs known as IEDs. Equally daunting is ensuring the military has Afghan public support. Marine Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, who is commanding the offensive, says if getting Marjah residents on his side means letting Taliban fighters flee to the hillsides, he's willing to do that.

Brigadier General LARRY NICHOLSON (Commander, U.S. Marines Corps, Southern Afghanistan): Kind of the bumper sticker for us is no more Marjahs. You know, we don't want to let them get somewhere else where they establish, you know, sanctuaries where we're not at. So we are concerned about their flight. But at the same time, frankly, trying to get to population is the most critical thing, and this operation is designed to get to the people.

NELSON: That means keeping civilian casualties in Marjah to a minimum, plus getting Afghan forces to take over security and the government to deliver services there as soon as possible. A small army of U.S. government aid workers and a new Afghan government to run the 70-square mile area are waiting in the wings to speed the process along. Kael Weston is the senior State Department representative at Marine headquarters in Helmand province. He's been working side by side with the Marines and Afghan officials to persuade Marjah's elders to turn against the Taliban.

Mr. KAEL WESTON (State Department Representative, Helmand): As the fighting subsides, I think there will be a lot more opportunity to have the right first impression that they're going to want from us, which is it's not just uniforms walking through their town. It's actually their own government, their own security forces and that government presence, with our help, starts to deliver projects right away.

NELSON: But that effort is now delayed until the fighting subsides. No one here can realistically say when that might be, given the level and type of resistance the joint force is encountering. Again, Kael Weston.

Mr. WESTON: We're only about 10 days in, and it's on top of a nine-year war. And that's why expectations on all sides need to be managed. This is truly the first time we, working with the Afghan government and Afghan security forces, are collaborating on a very, very tough challenge. And we shouldn't kid ourselves that the report card of Marjah will be finalized within a few weeks. It will be a while.

NELSON: The biggest threat to the joint force are the hundreds of IEDs Taliban fighters have planted in and around Marjah.

Unidentified Man #3: There we go.

Unidentified Man #4: Let's go.

NELSON: Uncovering and detonating those bombs is a full-time job for India Company of the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines.

(Soundbite of explosions)

NELSON: In a four-block radius, the Marines discovered more than 20 IEDs in the first few days. That included two on the other side of a wall, where two dozen Marines bedded down each night.

(Soundbite of explosions)

NELSON: Another impediment to a quick win are the continuing hit-and-run attacks by small bands of Taliban, even in areas the Marines think they have already cleared. India Company's Captain Bill Hefty estimated there are few militants in his area of operation, but that they have the home court advantage.

Capt. HEFTY: Compared to guerrilla fighters, we're a big, cumbersome beast. But they moved around a lot, a lot more than we did, and they know where they are. I mean, if this is my neighborhood, I'd know how to get in and out, too. But, no. I don't think there's more than 40 to 45. I mean, again, it's not like TV. One guy can stop 13 guys for a while.

NELSON: Rules governing when Marines can fire at militants are another problem. For example, they can't fire at a suspected Taliban fighter who has fired at them, unless they see him with a weapon. Also off-limits are militants who lay down their weapons. The goal is to protect civilians as much as possible, given how quickly and easily militants blend in here. But the rules have spawned a lot of confusion. Take this radio transmission between Marines during the offensive.

Unidentified Man #5: If operator sees any weapons, take the shot, break. If they lose (unintelligible) and he walks out someplace else and then he reappears without a weapon, they can't take the shot right now. Copy?

NELSON: That prompted this sarcastic exchange from several Marines listening in.

Unidentified Man #6: To shoot a guy that's shooting at you now, you need permission. Roger. This guy shot at me and I'm hit in three places and he's still shooting at me. Can I engage?

Unidentified Man #7: Do you have classified issues?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #7: Not anymore. He went into house. (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #6: Not anymore. He hid behind a wall.

Unidentified Man #7: Well, then...

Unidentified Man #6: Oh, oh, there's the - he just - ow. He just shot me again.

Unidentified Man #7: Did he change...

Unidentified Man #6: I'm shot four times. Do I have permission to engage?

Unidentified Man #7: Did he change clothes?

Unidentified Man #6: Can we get a grid on where he shot you at?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #5: (unintelligible) We got you. Copy four and four. Zero, one, clear.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: Checking and rechecking circumstances happens even when Marines are pinned down in a gun fight. On a recent afternoon, at least four militants firing from compounds had members of India Company in a tight spot for more than an hour in northwestern Marjah while they tried figuring out whether any civilians were in the buildings.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #8: Man, this has been going on for a while.

NELSON: One Marine was shot through the leg during the attack. Eventually, officials gave the nod for Cobra helicopter gunships to strike the compounds and free the Marines.

(Soundbite of helicopter, gunfire)

NELSON: Despite the Marines' best efforts, it turned out there were civilians inside. Nine were killed or wounded, many of them children. Survivors said they'd been forced to stay in their compounds by the Taliban.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Helmand Province.

INSKEEP: Other news out of Afghanistan this morning also involved civilian casualties. NATO jets struck a small convoy of mini buses on Sunday, only to discover that they were transporting women and children. It happened in Southern Afghanistan. More than 20 people were reported killed, and as many as a dozen more were wounded in that attack.

MONTAGNE: NATO forces have been working to reduce civilian casualties, so as not to alienate Afghans. Still, there have been several incidents in which civilians have been mistakenly targeted. The NATO commander, General Stanley McChrystal, said he was saddened by these recent deaths and has apologized to president Hamid Karzai.

INSKEEP: Only a day earlier, Karzai had called for more vigilance in protecting the civilian population. NATO and the Afghan government have launched an investigation into that attack.

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